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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
Deuteronomy 15



Verse 1

This chapter deals with the year of release, or the Sabbatical Year, and should be compared with Leviticus 25.

"At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he hath lent unto his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother; because Jehovah's release hath been proclaimed. Of a foreigner thou mayest exact it: but whatsoever of thine is with thy brother thy hand shall release. Howbeit there shall be no poor with thee (for Jehovah will surely bless thee in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it), if only thou diligently hearken unto the voice of Jehovah thy God, to observe to do all this commandment which I command thee this day. For Jehovah thy God will bless thee, as he promised thee: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over thee."

The plain meaning of this is that all debts shall be cancelled and forgiven in the Sabbatical Year, all debts to fellow Israelites. However, this is one of the laws of God that the Jews "made void by their tradition" (Matthew 15:6). It is regrettable that a scholar like Keil would have fallen into the devious "reasoning" by which the Jews nullified this commandment, assuming that, Philo and the Talmudists were correct in the affirmation that, "This simply meant lengthening the term for repayment!"[1] If this paragraph in God's Word means simply "declaring a moratorium on debts for one year," it was in no sense whatever a "release."[2] We are thankful that a number of discerning scholars came up with the correct answer here:

"The actual wording here favors the view that the actual release of the loan itself is meant. The early Jewish rabbis so understood it; and we should show that what is in view is the complete remission of debt.[3] This prescribes a release of debts.[4] The remission of the loan was absolute, thereby becoming a gift.[5] This law applies to charitable loans; and their whole remission is intended, not merely the interest, because this type of loan did not bear interest."[6]

A number of other scholars consulted were of the same opinion as these just cited, but these are sufficient to show what the true meaning is generally considered to be. One further point of interest is that this "release" also applied to Hebrew slaves who were to be freed in the Sabbatical Year. It was a genuine freedom that they received, and their former masters' were expected to endow them richly at the same time of their release. That "release" meant such a thing to slaves indicates that nothing less than full remission of debts could fulfil the "release" of debtors.

Deuteronomy 15:4 has the promise that, "There shall be no poor with thee!" This, of course, is the will of God for His people, and actually for all people; it was never the intention of God that people should be stricken with poverty and the suffering associated with it, but it should be noted that there is a qualifier on this promise: "IF ONLY THOU DILIGENTLY HEARKEN TO DO GOD'S COMMANDMENTS" (Deuteronomy 15:5). Deuteronomy 15:4 therefore states God's ideal for His people, an ideal that cannot ever be achieved apart from universal obedience to the commandments of God. Deuteronomy 15:7, below, indicates that the rule of God in the O.T. was exactly the same as it is in the N.T., "The poor ye have with you always" (Matthew 26:11).

There is nothing really strange about the fact of there always being those who are poor. There are many causes of poverty, some of course, being beyond the perimeter of anything that anyone can do to prevent it. Wars, famines, floods, and all kinds of natural disasters, etc., can issue in poverty for millions, but there are other causes of poverty, many of such causes being within people themselves. Immorality, drunkenness, wastefulness, irresponsibility, laziness, gambling, etc., - when such things are within people, poverty is inevitable. All of these things (and others like them) are poverty!

We have already noted that the Jewish rabbis and Talmudists quickly moved to get rid of this law about the remission of debts, and, as Ackland said, "There is reason to believe that this law was never fully implemented!"[7]

"Thou shalt lend to many nations, but thou shalt not borrow ..." (Deuteronomy 15:6) In the long history of the Jewish people, they have tended to fulfill the role of money-lender to mankind. "Both borrowing and lending are precarious practices! `Neither a borrower or a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.'"[8]

Verse 7

"If there be with thee a poor man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates in thy land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy poor brother; but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth. Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou give him naught; and he cry unto Jehovah against thee, and it be sin unto thee. Thou shalt surely give him, and thy heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him; because that for this thing Jehovah thy God will bless thee in all thy work, and in all that thou puttest thy hand unto. For the poor will never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy brother, to thy needy, and to thy poor, in thy land."

God's commandment to give to the poor dominates this paragraph. Note that the very motives of men's hearts are brought under judgment by such passages as this. If a poor man needs assistance shortly before the Sabbatical Year, those able to help him were forbidden to deny help because of the proximity of the year of "release." Incidentally, this shows that the "release" was not a mere moratorium, but a genuine and complete remission.

The admonition not to be "grieved" because of giving to a poor brother is strongly suggestive of Paul's famous quotation from Jesus, "God loveth a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7).

It is extremely significant that Deuteronomy 15:7-9 indicate that, "God will regard the cry of the poor as a witness against the hardhearted."[9] The Sabbatical Year made certain that a great deal of "lending to the poor" actually turned out to be giving to the poor! Giving to the poor without any thought of repayment is by far the best procedure. The Lord has said, "He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord" (Proverbs 19:17). Notice that in this very paragraph God has specifically promised to bless the man whose hand is open to his poor brother.

We like the picturesque manner in which Clarke translated Deuteronomy 15:9: "Beware that there be not a thought in thy good-for-nothing heart,"[10] with reference to that Sabbatical Year and the release of debts! The reason for the cheerfulness in giving, or the lack of grief, mentioned in Deuteronomy 15:10 was explained thus by Alexander: "They should not grieve in giving, because God would bless them in all their works, so that they should not only be no losers by so doing, but actually should be gainers by their generosity!"[11]

Despite the fact of its not being the will of God that poverty should exist (Deuteronomy 15:4), one has the flat statement in Deuteronomy 15:11 that "It shall never cease." "In the ideal order (where every person did the full will of God) there would be no poverty, but here, God is concerned with the actual realities of the present world."[12]

One other observation regarding the poor is that made by Adam Clarke who wrote: "It is an act of mercy that God leaves the poor among men in order to give men the opportunity to exercise feelings of tenderness, compassion, and mercy. Without occasions for men to exercise these feelings, man would soon degenerate into a Stoic or a brute."[13]

Verse 12

"If thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou lettest him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing-floor, and out of thy winepress; as Jehovah thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and Jehovah thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today. And it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go out from thee; because he loveth thee and thy house, because he is well with thee; then thou shalt take an awl, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. And also unto thy maid-servant thou shalt do likewise.

"It shall not seem hard unto thee, when thou lettest him go free from thee; for to the double of the hire of a hireling hath he served thee six years: and Jehovah thy God will bless thee in all that thou doest."

Despite the fact of the Old Testament's not condemning slavery as an institution, nevertheless there are many provisions that were designed to benefit and protect those who were slaves. This paragraph is such a provision. One tires of the ceaseless carping of self-appointed critics of the Sacred Text who find some kind of a "contradiction" on every page of it. Here it is alleged that in the parallel account of this manumission of servants in the seventh year, with special reference to the ceremony of boring the ear for one who desired to remain a servant, "The Exodus account (Exodus 21:5) indicates that the ceremony shall take place `before God,' 1e., in the tabernacle, but here, the place of the ceremony is not mentioned!" So, this is a CONTRADICTION? How ridiculous! Yet Dummelow insisted that, "In Exodus 21:6 the ceremony is performed in public before the magistrates; here it seems to be private."[14] A careful reading of the two accounts reveals that neither the public nor the magistrates are mentioned in Exodus, and there is not a word here about a private ceremony! The reason for the omission of the instructions that the ceremony was to be "before God," as Alexander noted, "was that the usage (of going to the tabernacle) was so regular and well known that it was needless formally to announce it here."[15]

Here is an appropriate place to deal with another alleged "contradiction" claimed by Biblical enemies. In Exodus 21:7-11, it is specifically stated that if a Hebrew man sold a daughter into slavery that she should not go out in the seventh year; whereas, here it is specifically declared that Hebrew servants, whether men-servants or maid-servants shall indeed "go out free" in the seventh year! Glory be! The critics think they sure enough have a "contradiction" here! Well, they have NOT! The passage in Exodus is restricted to a daughter sold into slavery, inevitably involving her as a concubine or a subordinate wife either of the new master or of his son, and the law against such a wife-slave being sent out was a protection to her. The justice of the law that required the master to keep the woman, provide her with the necessities of life, and not deny her the rights of marriage is very evident in the Exodus account. As McGarvey said, "It would have been a hardship for her, whether with children or without, to go out free and struggle for her own support."[16] The case here is utterly different! No wife-relationship whatever is being considered in the regulations here. Thus, all the talk about the "new status of women" in Deuteronomy is absolutely erroneous. There does seem to be, however, an explanation of such general terms as "brother" in the first verse of this paragraph, where "brother" is specifically defined as "a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman."

Haley likewise perceived the true explanation of the apparent conflict in these two accounts. He pointed out that no daughter would be sold into slavery without the expectation "that she should become a wife, although of the second rank."[17] Thus, the two accounts do not deal with the same situation at all. Exodus deals with the rights of a slave-wife, whereas the passage here deals with maid-servants without wife status.

The ceremony of boring the ear and fastening it to the door-post was symbolical. The ear is the organ through which a master's commands are communicated, and such a ceremony indicated that the servant was perpetually bound to heed his master's commands and obey them. "It also signified that the servant was permanently attached to his master's house."[18]

"Thou shalt furnish him liberally ..." (Deuteronomy 15:14). Cook tells us that, "This literally means, `thou shalt lay on his neck.'"[19] We might paraphrase this as "load him down with gifts." As Cook also suggested, the prospect of such rich gifts would greatly encourage faithfulness and diligence during the later years of one's servitude.

Concerning the laws here given by the Lord for the purpose of regulating slavery and of alleviating to some extent its odious nature, Wright has this:

"These laws show the first concern in human history for the condition of slaves and the first awareness of the wrong involved in one person's complete control over the fortunes of another. It is true that the privilege of freedom was extended only to fellow-Israelites, but even that was a step no other people hitherto had taken."[20]

Wright went ahead and credited this great advance in the knowledge of what was right or wrong to "The Israelite knowledge of the nature and purpose of God."[21] However, this was an advance that did not flow out of Israel's knowledge of God at all, but it came in the form of a direct revelation from Almighty God Himself. No priests of Israel (especially in the 7th century B.C.) could ever have either invented or discovered the kind of wisdom that abounds in the Bible! On the other hand, Israel would not even receive the knowledge after God gave it! Note:

"I made a covenant with your fathers ... At the end of seven years ye shall let go every man his brother that is a Hebrew, that hath been sold unto thee ... but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear ... but ye turned and profaned my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his hand-maid, whom ye had let go free at their pleasure to return; and ye brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids ..." Jeremiah 34:12-16.

Jeremiah's account, which should be read in full, shows how foreign the truth revealed here was from the spirit of Israel. They promptly made the law of God null and void by their tradition.

Verse 19

"All the firstling males that are born of thy herd and of thy flock thou shalt sanctify unto Jehovah thy God: thou shalt do no work with the firstling of thy herd, nor shear the firstling of thy flock. Thou shalt eat it before Jehovah thy God year by year in the place which Jehovah shall choose, thou and thy household. And if it shall have any blemish, or if it be lame or blind, any blemish whatsoever, thou shalt not sacrifice it unto Jehovah thy God. Thou shalt eat it within thy gates, the unclean and the clean shall eat it alike, as the gazelle, and as the hart. Only thou shalt not eat the blood thereof; thou shalt pour it out upon the ground as water."

Here again we have one of those "alleged contradictions" which are such a delight to critics. "In Numbers 18:15-18, the firstlings are the privilege of the priests, and here they are to be eaten by the owner and his household annually at the central sanctuary."[22] Scott stated that these two positions "are irreconcilable."[23] All such views vanish in the simple truth that the Jews had two kinds of firstlings. Haley quotes a number of scholars such as Michaelis, Jahn, and Davidson, all of whom affirm the existence of this second class of firstlings, this second kind "denoting the animals next in age to those belonging to the sacerdotal salary. Thus, the firstlings referred to here were additional to those mentioned in the previous three books of the Pentateuch."[24] There is also the possibility that it had become customary for the priests receiving the firstlings as their privilege to invite the owner and his family to share the feast provided. When it is remembered that the firstlings of a large herd or flock could easily run in to dozens or even hundreds of animals, this latter explanation is actually all that is needed.

It was forbidden to the owner that he should either use the firstlings for work, as in threshing, plowing, etc., or that he should shear the firstlings of the flock. That which belonged to the Lord was wholly his.

In the matter of blemished animals, they could not be sacrificed, but were to be eaten like any other animals slain for food, such as the gazelle or the hart. Only the proviso regarding the blood was to be carefully observed.


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 15:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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